Ariadne auf Naxos


AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.

Ariadne

Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.

Ariadne

Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.

Ariadne

It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.